The human cost of climate change

Alberta has more at stake than its environment and economy.

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This story is the third part of The Sprawl's Climate Change Series.

In considering the practical implications of climate change—its existential threat, its massive disruption—we tend to focus almost exclusively on two aspects: environmental and economic.

This is understandable. The environment is, of course, the stage on which climate change plays out, as well as its first casualty. Economics, meanwhile, is a fundamental component of society, and a particular obsession of a capitalist one: climate skeptics often clamour about the economic disruption that environmental policies may cause, forcing supporters of those policies to fight on those terms. Saving the planet isn’t enough—we have to turn a profit while doing it.

Often forgotten in the public discourse, though, are the human costs of a warming global climate, which can displace people from their homes, their emotional well-being, or their culture. From a possible influx of people fleeing newly unlivable parts of the world, to the mental health aspects linked to the loss of one’s environment, these effects may not be as conspicuous as melting glaciers or natural disasters, but their ramifications can be devastating for individuals, families, and society at large.

A climate refugee crisis

Climate change is, of course, a global issue, and while Alberta will have to cope with its own regional effects, the province will also likely have to grapple with another reality: climate migrants.

Some of the most climate-vulnerable parts of the world are also among the most populous. The type of extreme temperatures found in places like the Sahara today only cover less than 1% of the Earth’s total land. By 2070, those temperatures may cover a fifth of the land, largely centred around the equator where billions of people live.

Climate migration is going to be a serious problem if the world does nothing.

Stephen Kaduuli,

Policy analyst, Citizens for Public Justice

As these regions become increasingly unlivable, countless people will be forced to migrate, perhaps hundreds of millions.

Most of those displaced will remain in their home countries or regions, but many will leave. As a temperate northern country, Canada will be seen as a haven for these climate refugees.

“Climate migration is going to be a serious problem if the world does nothing,” said Stephen Kaduuli, a refugee rights policy analyst at Citizens for Public Justice.

Consider the political chaos caused by one million or so refugees fleeing from the Syrian civil war—particularly the racism and xenophobia that contributed to anti-immigration sentiments, and the rise of far-right nationalism and Brexit. Now imagine more than one hundred times as many people fleeing their homes.

Canada and Alberta have reaped the tremendous benefits of fossil fuel production for decades while the long-known consequences are primarily borne by others.

Many experts, including Kaduuli, argue that Canada thus has a “moral obligation” to provide safe-haven for those forced to flee their homes due to extreme weather events or unlivable conditions.

And so, as we grapple with the environmental and economic disasters wreaked by climate change, we will also likely have a large influx of climate refugees.

Kaduuli noted that Canada is in a privileged position: people displaced by equatorial climate change are much more likely to land in Europe, or at the doorstep of the United States. We’re farther removed from these future hotspots and thus harder to reach.

As with the refugee crisis during the Syrian civil war, Canada would be free to decide how many people it would be willing to accept, and then enable their arrival in a controlled fashion incongruous with the chaos elsewhere.

But in the worst scenarios, even parts of the United States will become uninhabitable.

It’s impossible to predict how many migrants would be accepted into Canada, and how many would come to Alberta. But their needs would be the same as the Syrian refugees: housing, employment, language training, and trauma counselling, as well as cultural and family support.

“These people will be fleeing life-threatening conditions, and they will need all the compassion to settle down,” Kaduuli said.

How this influx would impact the province depends in part on what effects climate change will have—how strong will our economy be, for example, and how much will our social services already be strained?

But we can also expect that the ugly side of our society that targeted Syrians will reappear, given that the earliest and largest numbers of climate migrants are likely to be from places in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The best thing is to keep people in their homes and address climate change.

Stephen Kaduuli,

Policy analyst, Citizens for Public Justice

“They will mostly be racialized people, so the same conditions will apply,” Kaduuli added. “There will be racism, xenophobia, calling them names.”

While mass climate migration is a possibility the world should be mindful of, Kaduuli emphasizes that by far the best way to deal with the issue is by avoiding it.

“The best thing is to keep people in their homes and address climate change.”

The social and psychological toll

Few would dispute that being forced to flee one’s home engenders trauma, whether the cause is political, economic or environmental. But climate displacement need not be strictly physical: remaining in place to witness the impact can also be devastating—a different sort of forced separation from one’s familiar environment.

As previously discussed in this series, Albertans can expect climate change to wreak havoc on our economy, which remains heavily based on resource extraction. The result is predictable: massive job losses and sustained economic turmoil.

Many Albertans know all too well the strain these circumstances can impose, resulting in an increase in harms such as domestic violence and mental health issues. Conditions like depression, however, aren’t solely tied to financial health. For many, the loss of natural environments is reason enough to grieve.

The concept of “eco-grief” has been getting increased mainstream attention in recent years. Everyone from academics to self-help gurus, to Bill Nye the Science Guy has broached the subject. Also known as solastalgia, it refers to a deep sense of loss or distress caused by change in one’s environment. A related term, eco-anxiety, stems from the fears around forthcoming environmental change.

In a 2010 paper on the subject, Mishka Lysack noted that many people are unfamiliar with the idea of environmental grief—but once he described the feeling in personal terms, “people insist that they know exactly what I am describing.”

At the time, there really wasn’t any language for this. Grief’ was a good choice for a term because it has to do with loss.

Mishka Lysack,

Professor, University of Calgary

Lysack, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, added that the field has evolved since then.

“At the time, there really wasn’t any language for this,” he said. “‘Grief’ was a good choice for a term because it has to do with loss.”

The language from the American Psychological Association, however, is blunt: “The ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate change.” Noting that extreme weather events can be obvious sources of trauma, the APA’s 2017 report on the subject emphasizes that “more subtle and indirect effects of climate change can add stress to people’s lives in varying degrees.”

The devastation of the 2013 Alberta floods was obvious in some ways, but hidden in others. The disaster, which was exacerbated by climate change, was the most expensive in Canadian history until the Fort McMurray wildfire surpassed it in 2016.

But such disasters also lead to serious social consequences, including an increase in domestic violence, suicide and substance abuse. Years after the streets were cleaned up and homes were rebuilt, many Albertans continue to carry less visible scars of the flood.

As worsening climate change increases the frequency and severity of Alberta’s extreme weather events—mostly floods and droughts, but also potentially tornadoes—there will be social and psychological consequences. Given that Alberta already has staggeringly high rates of domestic violence and substance abuse, climate change threatens to fuel a raging fire.

A disconnection from culture

While climate change and the ongoing climate crisis can often feel like a remote concept, or a problem for some other part of the world, no region will be able to escape its effects, including Alberta.

Anyone can become attached to an environment, and thus suffer the trauma of displacement from it. But for those whose culture has been deeply tied to a particular environment for millennia, that displacement can be akin to losing one’s sense of self.

Looking out the window in mid-December, Monroe Fox doesn’t like what she sees.

“There’s almost no snow,” said the 16-year-old. “That’s kind of depressing.”

Fox has felt a connection to the land for many years. Growing up on the Blood reserve in southern Alberta, she was influenced by her mother’s work in land management for the Blood Tribe. After meeting Indigenous ecologist Cristina Eisenberg, Fox became involved in some of the scientist’s projects, even travelling to South Africa last year to speak with her mother at an international conference.

Now a lead technician with a grassland restoration project in Montana in summer, and a high school student the rest of the year, Fox finds the threat of climate change and loss of ecosystems saddening.

There’s always a chance for change. People just have to be open to it, especially government officials.

Monroe Fox

“I think the best thing about snow is the snowy owl, how it looks against the snow,” she said. “A lot of people are missing out on these beautiful experiences that could only happen with these sets of conditions.”

Fox’s sense of hope waxes and wanes. “It varies,” she said. “There’s always a chance for change. People just have to be open to it, especially government officials.”

Given the importance in Blackfoot and other Indigenous cultures of the land and natural environment, the loss of that environment represents not merely a physical or economic catastrophe, but also a spiritual one. Fox is left wondering what will happen to her culture if it is robbed of the environmental context that produced it.

“It makes me think about all the plants and animals: Are they going to adapt fast enough, or am I going to be telling someone when I’m 70 years old, ‘I saw a snowy owl, this is what it looks like.’ Or can I take someone to actually see it?”

All humans are emotionally connected to their environment in ways that many of us take for granted. But what happens to a culture that has long made sense of the world by creating and passing down stories and mythologies inseparably tied to their environment? If humanity cannot adapt its destructive practices enough to save the snowy owl, and the snowy owl cannot adapt to save itself, then Blackfoot culture, displaced from its hereditary environment, will be forced to adapt to a world without a snowy owl.

“It makes me wonder,” said Fox. “Are those stories still going to continue on? Are they going to make sense if that plant or animal doesn’t exist anymore?”

Taylor Lambert is The Sprawl's Alberta politics reporter.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we need your help! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!